EDITORIAL – The Colorado Rapids 2021 season shocked Major League Soccer. They won the top seed in the Western Conference regular season and then lost in their opening playoff game for the second year in a row. Robin Fraser did a masterful job in his first full 34-game season as head coach. Almost every player on the first team contributed. They were again the Set Piece Kings of the league.
Colorado Rapids 2021 Season Review
The Rapids were greater than the sum of their parts in ways no one outside the club could have imagined. They took care of business against teams they were supposed to beat. They gradually got better performances against the elite teams on their schedule. All of this led to a 5-2 win on Decision Day to clinch a first round bye in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Fraser was nominated for Coach of the Year. The team went into the first ever MLS Cup Playoff game on Thanksgiving Day and lost. The finishing wasn’t there and they played a veteran Portland Timbers team who managed the game and jobbed them. While the regular season brought so much joy and so many surprises, they ultimately came up short when it mattered most.
There’s only two names in this conversation: Captain Jack Price and Michael Barrios. I’m going with Price. Barrios was a great new addition. He led the team in goals with 8 and was second in assists with 6 (Price led with 12). He revolutionized the team’s play in transition.
That said, Price was the unquestioned leader of this team. He was critical in organizing a defense that had 13 clean sheets and the second best goals against in the Western Conference. His service on set plays was again excellent. Price was the foundation to every phase of the game. Barrios had five fewer starts and was not a regular starter down the stretch as the team won the conference. For those reasons, Price is the 2021 Rapids MVP.
What went right:
Many things. The team’s progression over the last three seasons starts with Fraser. He gradually transitioned the team from a 4-3-3 to a (mostly) 3-5-2. The fluid tactics worked for the players he had and were well drilled. Auston Trusty blossomed as the season went along. Sam Vines was excellent, getting sold to Europe in the summer and Lucas Esteves proved a solid replacement.
The three main center backs all improved as the game went along and played well together. Auston Trusty became a regular starter and bossed games in the final two months of the season. He also showed his versatility and unselfishness while playing left back for a few games in the summer. The quality of Danny Wilson and William Yarbrough showed. Kellyn Acosta had himself a year getting back into the national team. Distressed Asset FC succeeded in the trades to acquire Barrios and Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Braian Galván gradually worked his way into a wing back position. Dominique Badji scored five goals as a late acquisition in the season. All of these individuals reaching their potential combined with how Fraser tactically and culturally developed the team led to their success.
What went wrong:
The playoff game on Thanksgiving, Cole Bassett’s finishing, and the lack of an individual goal scorer, and Younes Namli’s ankle injury. Bassett led the league in posts hit in the regular season. He had some of the worst finishing by the goals minus expected goals stat. The 20-year-old declined opportunities to go to Europe in the summer. He did improve his defensive play, pressing, and possession skills. But Bassett has become known for his late runs into the box and key actions on set pieces. Those evaporated in 2021.
Namli injured his ankle on May 8, requiring surgery that cause him to miss four months of the season. In 11 appearances, he had just one goal and one assist. His lack of production became a talking point throughout the season, though sometimes to highlight how incredible Colorado’s run was: They were one of the best teams in the conference all year long with only one Designated Player who makes just over $1 million and doesn’t play. Most of their completion had multiple high contributing DPs.
The biggest issue ultimately proved to be the lack of a reliable attacking threat. They did not have a double digit goal scorer. Their chance creation was by committee rather than through a high quality DP No. 10. This led to a lack of respect all the way up until Decision Day. When the team lost in on Thanksgiving, the national media took that as validation for the “the Rapids are a paper tiger because they don’t have a reliable high quality attacking player” narrative. This is the biggest point of improvement for next season.
What’s next for the offseason and 2022:
The first big question is who if anyone is leaving in January. Bassett could be on his way to Europe if there is a soft landing space. I have heard from multiple club sources that Auston Trusty is likely to be on the move for the right price. Galván and Jonathan Lewis could also be subject to the rumor mill.
They next question is who the club is bringing in. There’s already rumors here. Younes Namli was the only DP in 2021 and will not return. Will the club be signing a DP or multiple? How much money will be spent on wages and transfer fees in that? How much will selling young stars for large fees in January influence that?
Colorado is lacking a reliable and quality center forward. A central or left-sided chance creator to complement Barrios would also help significantly. A DP or money ball signing at either of these positions would be a big deal.
I do not see this team finishing first in the conference again. Too many big spending teams in the West will make moves to improve. Ultimately the 2022 Rapids will be judged based on whether they can make it back to the playoffs and actually win a playoff game.
Photo Credit: Mark Shaiken, Last Word on Soccer.